Survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster have accused the government of playing “Russian roulette” by failing to fix hundreds of thousands of high-rise homes with similar fire safety defects.
Before Monday’s fourth anniversary of the fire, Ed Daffarn, a 16th-floor resident, said: “This stuff still littering this country is a recipe for disaster and they can’t say they haven’t been warned … If they don’t get this stuff off the buildings there will be another Grenfell.”
Daffarn predicted the 14 June 2017 blaze at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council block in a community blog eight months earlier that warned: “Only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”
Last month a fire in an east London block still fitted with Grenfell-style aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding caused three people to be hospitalised and dozens treated for smoke inhalation. It spread rapidly up three floors via wooden balconies, whose removal had been delayed by a dispute between the builder and leaseholders over who should pay.
Latest government figures show that 217 of the high-rise residential buildings found to have ACM cladding have still not been completely fixed, with works yet to start at all on 36 blocks. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more flats have other fire safety defects that have left leaseholders facing bills of up to £100,000 each. The government has made £5bn available to help, but MPs estimate the bill is three times higher.
The bereaved and survivors will mark Monday’s anniversary of the fire that claimed 72 lives by lighting up churches around London in a green glow. There is rising frustration that no one has yet been held civilly or criminally accountable for the disaster and that the government has stalled reform of rights for social housing tenants.
“I am incredibly angry we’re still in this situation,” said Karim Mussilhy of the families group Grenfell United, who lost his uncle Hesham Rahman in the fire. “The fact we are still having to campaign says it all. We are having to campaign for people to be safe in their homes and for better treatment for social housing tenants. Everything has to be fought for.”
The public inquiry has in the last year revealed that cladding and insulation manufacturers were aware of the risks posed by the materials used on Grenfell but continued to market them. It heard that the council’s builders had described tenants who raised concerns about the works as “rebel residents”.
But the inquiry is not likely to conclude until next year and police investigating possible offences including manslaughter will not formally ask prosecutors for charging decisions until after it has delivered its final report. So far only one arrest has been announced – of an unnamed 38-year-old man in Sussex on suspicion of perverting the course of justice, since released under investigation.
“Four years on I fear that those responsible for the fire are going to get away with murder,” said Nabil Choucair, who lost six members of his family in the fire. “It’s a shame that the public inquiry cannot be stopped and the criminal investigation is completed and prosecutions put in place immediately.”
Yvette Williams, a spokesperson for the Justice4Grenfell group, which represents bereaved people and the wider community, said: “Not only is there still no clear sense of who is accountable … but people still have to live in properties deemed unsafe due to cladding of the same kind used on Grenfell Tower.”
Grenfell United said there was still a “cycle of inaction and indifference”.
“We hear more damning evidence every week at the public inquiry showing us just how preventable the fire was – had they listened,” it said. “Yet four years on, the government is as determined as ever to avoid taking any meaningful action to prevent another Grenfell.”
In May the government omitted a bill to reform social housing, including the treatment of resident complaints, from the Queen’s speech. It said it would “continue to develop reform of social housing regulations and look to legislate as soon as practicable”. It was supposed to enshrine in law proposals that the housing secretary promised in November 2020 would give tenants “a much stronger voice and, in doing so, [refocus] the sector on its social mission”.
The Grenfell community feels a close affinity to the Hillsborough families, whose own 32-year fight for justice came to a bitter close last month with the acquittal of two police officers.
“If Hillsborough is to mean anything it means families shouldn’t have to fight for three decades to get some kind of justice or closure,” said Daffarn. “We have to begin to fear that with no criminal prosecutions in sight, with no meaningful change to social housing, how long are we going to have to wait and what legacy will be delivered in the end?”
A government spokesperson said: “We are bringing forward the biggest improvements to building safety in 40 years through our building safety bill and an unprecedented £5bn funding package to ensure residents are safe, alongside important new measures to improve the quality of social housing for residents. Work is already complete or under way in the vast majority of high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding.”